There are, however, differences in how product managers connect with the users. While a technologist may spend time at industry conferences talking to other developers or reading Hacker News, the generalist will typically spend that time interviewing customers, talking to the sales team, or reviewing usage metrics.
Modern product managers are increasingly filling the new CEO pipeline for tech companies. Before becoming the CEOs of Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo, Sundar Pichai, Satya Nadella, and Marissa Mayer were product managers, and they learned how to influence and lead teams by shepherding products from planning to development to launch and beyond. Such experience is also valuable beyond tech: PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi started her career in product management–like roles at Johnson & Johnson and Mettur Beardsell, a textile firm.
While today such a background remains rare among CEOs, product-management rotational programs are the new leadership-development programs for many technology companies (for example, see the Facebook Rotational Product Manager Program, the Google Associate Product Manager Program, and the Dropbox Rotation Program). Any critic of the analogy between product managers and CEOs will point out that product managers lack direct profit-and-loss responsibilities and armies of direct reports, so it is critical for product managers with ambitions for the C-suite to move into general management to broaden their experience.
Over the next three to five years, we see the product-management role continuing to evolve toward a deeper focus on data (without losing empathy for users) and a greater influence on nonproduct decisions.
Product managers of the future will be analytics gurus and less reliant on analysts for basic questions. They will be able to quickly spin up a Hadoop cluster on Amazon Web Services, pull usage data, analyze them, and draw insights. They will be adept at applying machine-learning concepts and tools that are specifically designed to augment the product manager’s decision making.
We anticipate that most modern product managers will spend at least 30 percent of their time on external activities like engaging with customers and the partner ecosystem. Such engagement will not be limited to consumer products—as the consumerization of IT continues, B2B product managers will directly connect with end users rather than extracting feedback through multiple layers of sales and intermediaries.
Similarly, the background of future product managers will evolve to match this new role. A foundation in computer science will remain essential and will be supplemented by experience and coursework in design. Product managers will know how to create mock-ups and leverage frameworks and APIs to quickly prototype a product or feature. Product managers will typically start their careers either as engineers or as part of a rotational program. After three to four years, they may get an executive or a full-time MBA with a specialization in product management, which is becoming an area of focus at several top-tier MBA programs, and which we expect will become more prevalent.
A key aspect of a future product manager’s profile will be frequent transitions between products and even companies. A product manager at a leading B2B technology company told us, “For success at our company, it is critical that you are constantly learning not just new technologies but also new business models. Hence we hire a lot of folks laterally from Google, Amazon, and VMware and encourage our product managers to rotate through products.”
We recommend that organizations begin with a thorough assessment of their current product-management capabilities in six areas: a grounding in customer experience, market orientation, business acumen, technical skills, soft skills, and the presence of organizational enablers. Companies typically focus on being best in class in one to three areas and meeting the bar across the board .
Once a company has established a baseline of its product-management capabilities, it typically follows two parallel paths—hiring new talent in strategic areas and investing in a broad capability-building program for existing talent. For the latter, a field-and-forum approach has proved to work best, where product managers work on real projects with regular coaching and feedback.
Software development needs to be a strategic priority for all companies in today’s digital era. Product managers play a pivotal role, serving as the connection between software-engineering teams and all other parts of the organization. Distinct archetypes have emerged at leading tech companies that can point the way for organizations setting out to build new digital capabilities.